Ever watch a Coen brothers film and think, “Gee, this would be a lot better if the characters had buck teeth and fell down a lot?” Then you may love A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, Yimou Zhang’s adaptation of Blood Simple. Trading the Coens’ wit for slapstick, the acclaimed Hero and House of Flying Daggers director delivers a story of deception and murder that’s never as chilly as it is broad and bizarre.
Taking place in a remote part of China near the Great Wall, the plot, at least, is nearly point-for-point. Wang (Dahong Ni) is the wealthy owner of a noodle shop and abusive husband to his much younger (and unnamed) wife (Ni Yan). She, obviously, is not particularly fond of Wang and starts an affair with Li (Xiao Shen-Yang), one of his goofy employees. She also buys a gun for protection that she keeps hidden in the shop.
Wang finds out about her infidelity and bribes a policeman (Honglei Sun) to kill her and Li. Instead, the cop fakes their deaths and kills Wang with the intention of stealing the rest of his money. When Li happens upon Wang’s dead body, he freaks, makes assumptions, and freaks some more, pretty much until the end of the film.
Besides Wang, the officer, and to some degree the wife, these characters are cartoons, from the pirate-y Persian gun salesman to Wang’s two other employees, a roly-poly, giant-toothed dimwit and a pig-tailed naïf who conspire to steal the pay owed them from Wang’s safe. When the intended comic reliefs aren’t gasping and flailing, the film is largely wordless, including a lengthy, snoozy overnight sequence in which most of the action takes place. Except “action” is a stretch: These dirty deeds go down slow, focused mainly on the cop’s attempts to get Wang’s money, the employees’ attempts to get Wang’s money, and Li’s valiant if scampering attempts to cover up what he believes his lover did.
It’s an exhausting effort, with all of the Coens’ labyrinthine developments and none of their noir flourish. What Zhang can be proud of is the cinematography by his go-to Oscar-nominated collaborator, Xiaoding Zhao. Frequent and stunning overhead shots include a balletic noodle-making scene and a horse-drawn cavalry traversing the wall in a blue-gray twilight; when the scenery isn’t dusky, it’s brightly multicolored, though too often that means the antics take on a circus-like tone. The problem: “Circus” and “antics” aren’t exactly the kind of words that should be associated with a story as dark as Blood Simple’s, and neither are “woman,” “gun,” and “noodle shop.”